meades by james

As a writer and broadcaster about the arts, Jonathan Meades is essentially a nightmare that is happening to the spinning cadaver of Kenneth Clark. Though the great late pundit was much more of a democrat than he is commonly reputed to be in retrospect, he nevertheless embodied the idea that taste and knowledge were the preserves of gentlemen. Meades knows which fork to pick up, but he is deeply the other thing: an educated upstart who not only doesn’t know his place, but knows far more than his allotted share about all the other places. In his TV series of 2007 he at last, after several previous efforts heading in the same direction, arrived at a tour of recent English building styles that matched his vivid commentary with an appropriately disciplined visual bravura. The splendidly unsettling results owed a lot to Sir John Betjeman’s quondam ambulatory style, but superseded it as a Volkswagen Beetle dragster with a chrome-plated V8 engine in the back supersedes the original. The tradition that started with Betjeman and Piper’s Shell guides can now be said to have reached a culmination in the personality of Meades. The latest and most subversive exemplar of a useful broadcasting tradition, he still startles me most in his journalism, which is best approached through his collection Peter Knows What Dick Likes (Paladin, 1989). The pieces selected here prove his gift for reaching sideways out of aesthetics and bringing in the sociology and the politics as well, with no care for who gets offended. (I myself continue to be deeply miffed by his piece about Blade Runner: doesn’t he realise that my own dress sense spent twenty years in debt to Deckard? Or perhaps he does.) Meades is a superb political commentator even on an historical scale. Nobody has written better about the mystical proclivities of the top Nazis, and a TV show of his that connected Himmler’s sinister mystical vision with King Arthur’s Camelot is still in my mind when I wake sweating in the night. To induce such discomfort is part of the Meades mission. Clearly it is a mental area in which he lives every day. The wonder is that it doesn’t scramble the powers of composition behind a prose style so pugnaciously cultivated, so unpredictably informative, and, enviably often, so extremely funny.

Clive James